NIGERIANS DON’T GIVE ACCUSED PEOPLE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT – BABACHIR LAWAL, FORMER SGF

A former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, who was sacked from the position over corruption allegations, Babachir Lawal, tells Hindi Livinus about his disagreement with Governor Jibrilla Bindow and what he thinks about the Senate

You recently said you were happy that the EFCC had begun investigating your corruption allegation case, insinuating that the Senate was bias. Are you saying that the investigative panel headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was also bias?

Well, at the expense of being repetitive, If I had a copy of the report of the vice presidential committee, I would be able to judge whether it reflected the truth of what transpired there or not. Since I am not privy to the details of the report and all the recommendations made, therefore I am not in a position to tell you whether I consider it bias or not.

Many Nigerians believe that you have so far enjoyed preferential treatment from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission on account of your relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari. How would you respond to that?

You surprise me by even asking this question: what is the essence of investigation? It is to establish the truth or otherwise of an accusation, isn’t it? To my mind, that is what the EFCC is expected to do. Now, Nigerians seem to have the mindset that every time you come under investigations, it implies that you are guilty. Nigerians never give (people) the benefit of the doubt that investigations could in fact exonerate the accused person rather than find him guilty.

So, what is the preferential treatment there? Whatever basis they have to investigate me; the allegations were forwarded to it (EFCC) and it was instructed to investigate me. Obviously, they (EFCC operatives) will need to do a thorough job, which could come out either way. They could say he’s guilty, prosecute him or he’s not guilty, we’ll not prosecute him. Or they could say we have sufficient evidence that when we take him to court, we will be able to prove that he’s guilty or say we don’t have sufficient evidence to take him to court. It could go either way, so the conclusion that the EFCC must find me guilty is erroneous. It is mischievous, in fact.

You have consistently stated your innocence despite the allegations against you (cuts in)?

Yes I have.

There were insinuations that the Osinbajo-led panel indicted you in its report, considering how you were removed from office.

Look, first of all, the panel invited me, and not just me, they invited almost all the companies and individuals connected to the issue. We all made our cases; now, it is only when we see the report that we will be able to judge whether its recommendations and context reflect what transpired at the panel. We cannot form an opinion on the basis of what we don’t know.

You have said that you have yet to see the Osinbajo-led panel’s report. Do you consider this as unusual or is it a normal practice in the civil service?

I am not a civil servant. Hmm! Nigerians don’t like to understand the issues involved because we are a people with a mindset. Once the mind is made up, you shut your eyes to contrary evidence.

The issues were simply these: the Senate alleged that the company, Rholavision, which I once ran as Managing Director, benefitted from N7m contract for consultancy services.

Was the grass-cutting contract you were allegedly involved in worth N7m or N200m? Reports say it is worth N200m.

No, that company won a contract for consultancy services, which was worth N7.2m or so. A different company won the main contract on the basis of the report of Rholavision Engineering Nigeria Limited, and its role was to define the scope of the project, produce an estimate for doing the project and supervise the implementation of the project.  There are two issues: that I awarded a contract to a company in which I had interest and that the companies that ever did projects, not necessarily the grass-cutting projects but other projects, gave bribes to the SGF.

That is the kernel of the issue. But the issue is: was I still connected

to that company? The fact that I was once the Managing Director of a company does not mean the company should fold up. They have workers, over 50 of them that they pay salaries to, and so, they have to continue in business. All I needed to do was to disassociate myself from the business. The process of disassociating myself from the business had commenced four days before I became SGF. I had resigned from the company. A friend, who is a seasonal lawyer, had advised me on what to do after I called him to know how to go about it. He said I needed to disassociate myself from the board of the company.

And did you disassociate yourself from the running of the company?

Yes, my understanding was if I was a director I should resign; that is, whether I was the Managing Director or whatever position I was occupying, I should resign. That is, if I was an Executive Director, for instance, I should resign from that position. I was a director in 16 companies, including Rholavision, as of that time. So, I wrote a letter to my solicitors, instructing them to remove me as a director in the 16 companies, including Rholavision.

The crux of the matter is whether you received kickbacks for the projects overseen by the Presidential Initiative on the North-East? Did you or did you not collect kickbacks?

(Laughs) Now let me tell you what the ingenious Senate did; it went and got so many companies that did project with PINE, some classroom rehabilitations in Adamawa, some police barracks building projects in Yobe, Adamawa and all over. These are independent companies that did different projects with PINE; they analysed them one by one. But three or four of those projects had long time relationship with Rholavision. I say long because some them used to buy computers from Rholavision. Rholavision used to also buy things from them.

Do you have grounds to suspect the Senate’s investigation was a witch-hunt?

Certainly, it was a witch–hunt; everybody knows it was a witch-hunt.

If that was the case, why did you then call off their bluff?

I called their bluff because you don’t glorify lies. I mean, politics is not the end game in life. You know, if you are properly brought up by godly parents, you would assume that the other person has conscience like you and he will get to a point where he will know what he’s doing is harmful and stupid. We tried notwithstanding.

You recently attended the All Progressives Congress’ first ever stakeholders’ meeting in Adamawa State, what was the outcome?

Well, I don’t think that was a stakeholders’ meeting. We came in good faith, thinking that we were going to have a political stakeholders’ meeting; quite a lot of eminent Adamawa citizens were in attendance. They sacrificed their time and spent their money and other resources to be able to attend this meeting.

A political stakeholders’ meeting is a project of the party; it ought to be a project of the party, not the government. As far as the APC constitution is concerned, and in any democratic process, the government of the day defers to the political party on which platform it came into power, and so the party is supreme.

We came for this meeting, expecting an interactive session because if you say stakeholders’ meeting, it means you have the opportunity to participate. Of course, it’s true that senior stakeholders and the conveners of the meeting will have the first say, but that is just to set the ball rolling. But what we saw was not a party stakeholders’ meeting, it was more like a government briefing. It was one way; there was no interaction at all. The only reason I talked was because I didn’t feel it was good to waste my time, energy and resources, given the position I have reached in the politics of Nigeria, to come and listen to a choreographed meeting. The meeting was choreographed. So I insisted that I must have a say.

You could see there was movement up and down and when I realised that nobody was going to ask those of us on the lower side to talk, I insisted that if I was not given the opportunity to talk to the party stakeholders’, I would be left with no option but to talk to the generality of the party members through the media.

Apparently, they were scared and they somehow managed to find some time for me to talk. And for those of you that were there, you could see that when what I was saying was not palatable to them, they first of all encouraged some noisy discussions in the place and later switched off the loudspeaker and indeed started the national anthem while I was still having the floor.

These are all primitive ways of gagging somebody who has a contrary view to your own. As far as I’m concerned, that is not democracy.

You also raised the issue of zoning being at the heart of the APC’s constitution, are you bringing this up to address any perceived imbalance in the state?

It’s important for our party to understand these things and that zoning is at the heart of the Constitution of Nigeria. No part of the country should feel marginalised in any agency of the government and indeed, in any agency of the society. It is in the APC constitution that the federal character principle must be practised in the election or selection of all organs of the party. What does this mean? It means that every position in the executive council of the ward must reflect the diversity of the ward and that can only be done through zoning by the stakeholders.

In my speech, which they tried to drown, I did allude to the fact that if we were to go into an open election, it would mean that all aspirants would be allowed to contest and it is likely that all the ward executives could come from one village. In my own ward, there are 21 polling units; it will be good for the party if the 26 members of executive council could come from at least a polling unit. As such, even during election, the party will have one person at a polling unit; but they didn’t want to hear that. Adamawa State is a multi- religious, multi-ethnic state. Initially at the formation, the APC had a chairman that is a Christian, Senator Binta Masi Garba, from Michika, Adamawa North Senatorial District. The former governor, Admiral Murtala Nyako (retd.), hails from the South Senatorial District, while the secretary of the party, Mallam Abdullahi Bakari, hails from the Central Senatorial District. Binta Masi is a Christian; Nyako is a Muslim and Bakari is a Muslim. I believe that if we had another prominent religion in the state, one of the positions would have gone to it. By God’s grace, Binta won the election to become a senator, Abdullahi Bakari was appointed the Principal Personal Assistant to the governor; Nyako of course, finished his tenure. We were thinking that we must reflect the same spirit in the coming executive because the then Acting Chairman, (Ibrahim Bilal) was the Chairman of Michika Local Government Area. When Binta left to become a senator, the deputy (Late Shuaibu Ya-Musa, a Muslim, took over as the acting chairman; that was the position of the party. The expectation was that there must be a mini-congress to correct the anomaly which had never happened. Unfortunately, the then acting chairman died, so we were left with no option but to look for somebody to replace him. And stakeholders brainstormed and felt that Ibrahim Bilal should go since his bloc, the 21 local government chairmen of the party, formed the largest group. And the national headquarters bought into the idea but that it should only be for two months. He was given a letter for two months, subject to performance and other opportunities within the party.

I must admit that Bilal was not a bad chairman initially. The problem started when he started putting his posters on vehicles along with that of contestants. And we felt that didn’t portray a neutral position. A chairman of a party should not be seen on a poster with an aspirant, until after the nomination process has been concluded and the aspirant has emerged as the candidate of the party.

You alluded to the executive position within the party being skewed against Christians? Can you explain this?

The Christian community feels shortchanged that it doesn’t have a stake in the APC.  We have a very large segment of the party who are Christians insisting that if they don’t get carried along, there are alternative parties they could join. And this is very inimical to this party.

So anybody with ambition to win election with the APC in Adamawa State  ought to feel worried about this potential revolt. But somehow, the government in the state doesn’t seem to be bothered because retaining Bilal appears to be in their own interest. And when I tried to point this out to senior party members, they didn’t want it. And that was the best opportunity to point it out to them. They didn’t have the opportunity to get the feelings of people in that room, and I was left with no other option. We felt that we should put our case straight to the electorate and to Nigerians to judge whether we were wrong in taking that position.

Don’t you think this kind of skirmishes show that the APC is already in the graveyard as some have said?

Well, you make me very sad if you say APC is in the graveyard because I’ve invested all my life in the party. Historically, I was a member of the merger committee of the APC, being a member of the merger committee of Congress for Progressive Change. I’d been involved in this merger process since 2011 when the Action Congress of Nigeria and the CPC wanted to merge. At that time, we called it an alliance because the time was too short for a full merger process.

We realised quite early that if we were going to wrest power, we needed to be a large party. So even the initiation, the planning of the merger process up to the execution of it, I was a member. I was a member of the first National Working Committee of the APC, I was the National Vice Chairman (North-East) before I became SGF. I looked at all those people claiming authority on that high table in a way, especially as they forgot that I was there before them. And as for me, I sleep and wake up APC. Therefore, to say that the APC is dead in my state is a sad thing to hear; however, the APC is not dead.

Let me give you a story, there was a time when we were dispersed for general elections in the state; our last meeting of the presidential campaign committee and stakeholders. There were presentations – state by state analysis – and one analyst said Adamawa State had 40 per cent chance of winning. And the current President was worried and he asked, what did they say? I said, forget about them sir, in Adamawa, we’ll get 80 per cent. At that time, I didn’t even know where my confidence was coming from because that time, Adamawa was under state of emergency. So the understanding was that soldiers would take the ballot boxes and stuff them for the Peoples Democratic Party. But the first shock I had when I came was when I was passing through roadblocks to go and vote in my village. The soldiers were allowing me to jump the queues; obviously they were with us. Therefore, I didn’t know where they got their analysis from.

Also, when I got to my village, I went to the polling station for my accreditation and the two policemen posted to that station distanced themselves from the process and were about hundred metres away. This is what the rules say.

So I started wondering where those doomsday scenarios were coming from. In the end, Adamawa APC produced seven members of the House of Representatives out of eight, three senators out of three and one governor out of one. The reason was that in the end, the divisions that used to cause problems in Adamawa had been sorted out. Both Christians and Muslims were campaigning on one platform. If you entered a church and the pastor was preaching and abusing the APC, if he looked up and saw you there, he would remember that some of his church members were for the APC and it was the same thing in the mosques. Therefore, Adamawa was united in electing this government; both religions and all tribes. I remember very well during the primaries, Jibrilla Bindow defeated Boss Mustapha in Hong Local Government Area, he got 127 votes and Boss got 80.

The people in Hong Local Government Area are predominantly Christians.

Boss Mustapha is Kilba (by tribe), Hong is 90 per cent Kilba, but they voted for Bindow. Now, it surprises us that his (Bindow) government does not see the pitfalls in a situation in which Christians will feel sidelined and will then go out to look for a Christian governor, and the Muslims will go out to look for a Muslim governor. But I think in spite of what happened at the meeting, it was a success because most people got the message we tried to pass across.

Governor Bindow scored himself very high at the stakeholders’ meeting, do you agree with him on that?

Look, in my position as a major stakeholder of the APC, even if Bindow performed woefully, I should find positive things to say about him.

Even if he has not done anything, it’s incumbent on me as a leader of the party to say he has done well. Not to invent a lie though, because everybody knows me; I don’t tell lies. As a leader of the party, I should look for one positive thing that he has done and then dwell on it.

When we were coming for the very first time with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) for elections here, in Yola, we took a very long road to the Government House because of bad roads. Buhari asked me where they were taking us through. I answered and said, Sir, they don’t want you to see the potholes on the roads. Now, we don’t have those things in Yola, thank God for that. I have three cars here, I can take those roads; nobody will stop me. All of us can use the roads and it’s a good thing. And it’s also a good thing to assume that if he is reelected, maybe, he will do well in the education sector.

But on the balance of probability, I can say that Bindow has done well in road infrastructure and if there are things he’s doing, they will soon manifest. But on the political front, he has not done well because he has not carried stakeholders along. And I wish I had an opportunity to tell him to carry stakeholders along because later, I’ll go back to Hong, and in my position, I can influence what happens there in terms of who they will vote for. All those people there, when they return to their local governments, they have impact. So when you call them, humiliate them and don’t allow them to talk, you pay the price eventually; that is what we are trying to avoid. But I think Bindow has done well on the provision of basic infrastructure, roads, but I don’t know about water. I was in Kaduna recently and found that areas that had no water supply for centuries, taps run there now. Therefore, development is holistic.

From the history of political wrangling in Adamawa State, we can see that there have always been two sets of fighters – the Abuja politicians and those who call themselves home based. It appears that this is now manifesting again with you coming from Abuja…(cuts in)?

From your narrative, who has always won? (Laughs)

It is clear that your party in the state is in deep crisis, what will you do to rescue it?

This being a personal question, I will answer it in a personal way.

I had never participated in politics, even at the students’ union level. I keep telling people that I voted for the first time in 2011. I joined politics specifically as a ‘Buhari politician’; any involvement I have at any level at all is with a view to making sure we get the votes. If Buhari wins an election; as far as my political conviction is concerned, God has done it for me. However, politics is local as you said. The votes are at the polling stations, not in Abuja or what have you. So, you must be involved in a system that can control those polling units in a manner that can produce the votes you need. So if my friend here who is a senator wants to win. If from his constituency, there are many contenders and I want him to win, knowing he will do a good job, he’ll have my support. Therefore what we’re trying to do is to reposition the party. How important will it be in Abuja if my state is, for example, led by the Social Democratic Party? One will just be talking like an empty barrel. There are Abuja politicians, though. You only get to see them when there is a big meeting in Abuja and if they are not on the high table, that meeting will not hold, but if you send them back to their villages, they cannot give you two votes. But we are not like that and we hope that those who are major beneficiaries of our victory will find a way of uniting the different tendencies.

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